The cross isn’t just about our guilt and shame

Do you know the cross can be interpreted through multiple lenses? If you find that Jesus’ crucifixion feels unapproachable, you may want to try a new perspective, writes Elana Keppel Levy.

Photo by Diana Vargas on Unsplash

Jesus died for our sins. From cradle to grave, I’ve been taught to be in awe of Jesus’ wondrous love represented through the cross. Our sin is too deep to undo; our guilt is too baked into our humanity; our debt is too large to forgive. We are not worthy of God’s redemption. Yet, still, Jesus saves us.

Traditionally, Christians have understood the cross by emphasizing humanity’s guilt and sin. For many, this is the only way to view the cross. Any other approach is heresy. It took me years to recognize that I did not find comfort, wisdom, or strength in this theology. Mercifully, the Bible itself and the history of Christian theology offer a variety of ways to understand the crucifixion.

What happened on the cross may be one of the greatest divine mysteries of all time. We can no sooner explain its precise inner workings than we can describe the immensity of God’s being. Yet, we are invited to approach the cross — not for understanding but for a relationship with God. If we think we can grasp the totality of what transpired, we are filled with pride. Humility and an openness to Christ will serve us better as we seek understanding.

Everything we know about the cross has come to us as a metaphor. The Bible talks about the cross as a place of forgiveness (Colossians 2:13-14) and ransom (Mark 10:45) and escape from punishment (Romans 5:6-11), but there are other perspectives to consider.

Solidarity – The cross as love  

It doesn’t take too much digging to see that the Bible also talks about the cross as a place of love. It exemplifies God’s compassion for us — to suffer with us and not turn against us (John 14:18-21; Hebrews 4:15). The cross is a place where we can learn about the love God has for us and what love we should show one another (John 15:13).

Reconciliation – The cross as purification and connection

The Bible also reminds us that the cross is a place where we are reconciled to God. As German-American theologian Paul Tillich reminds us in The Shaking of the Foundations, sin is what separates us from God. On the cross, Christ dramatically demonstrated to us that our relationship with God cannot be severed. Instead, God’s action ensures we are purified and can approach the heavenly sanctuary (Hebrews 10:19-22). We are connected; we are God’s children; we are reconciled (2 Corinthians 5:17-19).

Union – The cross as restoration

And there’s more: the cross is a place where Christ’s unfailing obedience contrasts with our disobedience (Romans 5:18-19). In being born, in entering the place of the dead, Jesus changed the essence of what it means to be human (2 Corinthians 5:14-15 & Galatians 2:19-20). We are able to go back to our original goodness. A new way opens up (1 Corinthians 15:3-4, 21-22). As John the Baptist said – we must decrease and he must increase (John 3:30).

Cosmic clash – The cross as liberation

Of course, there’s also an abundance of Scripture and tradition that reminds us of the cosmic aspect of the cross. Jesus confronted the greatest evil, the greatest forces that oppose God and assail humanity, including death itself. He fought a great battle and won. In his victory, he shared the spoils with humanity — life everlasting, goodness forevermore (Hebrews 2:14-15). Or, we might understand Christ as the One who sees what binds us – poverty, bigotry, abuse – and sets us all free (Galatians 1:3-4). Both oppressor and oppressed can be free in Christ (Galatians 5:1).

When we talk about the cross, we often focus on salvation (what saves us) and atonement (what unites us with God). Since our theology is metaphorical, we should never be afraid to seek out and embrace a new metaphor if the one we’ve been working with no longer serves our faith. This has happened throughout history.

After the horrors of the Holocaust, many Christians had to face their complicity in what happened. Some viewed the theory of penal substitution (the transfer of our sins to Christ) as too abstract. This theory was widespread, yet when the time for courageous action came, it didn’t motivate most Christians to stand up for what was right. The world was full of evil and pain, and Christians didn’t see it as related to them, or they didn’t care. Thus, many theologians shifted to the theory that the cross was the place where Christ suffered with (not for) us or that it was a profound symbol of our responsibility to live in love (and not just claim to live in love).

If you can’t believe in the cross you’ve always been taught to believe, that’s alright. You don’t need to turn away.

God will not condemn us for reading the pages of Scripture closely, for praying earnestly, for seeing our salvation in a new light. Our lives change and so does our faith. We face new problems and new challenges, that will lead us to resonate with different theologies of the cross. Taking these changes seriously is a sign of faith and trust in God.

If you can’t believe in the cross you’ve always been taught to believe, that’s alright. You don’t need to turn away. The cross may yet point to something more for you. Just know that you can shift the angle of your gaze. Research and explore the insights of Peter Abelard and Jürgen Moltmann (solidarity); Irenaeus of Lyon and Athanasius of Alexandria (union); Gustaf Aulén, René Girard, and Gregory of Nyssa (liberation). It is holy and courageous to do this theological study. In the text of sacred pages and the grapplings of the saints of the past, we can find more wisdom, more grace, and more insight about the cross and our salvation.

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